“Chiba is cheaper,” is how someone once put it. The image stuck. For years I used to carry a subliminal impression of Chiba, both the city and the prefecture, as somehow being even more rundown, improvisational and tacky, than the sprawl that surrounds most other major Japanese cities. Then about ten years ago I discovered the reality, which I will now pass on to save others from slipping into error.
Yes, Chiba canbe run down in places, particularly in the sprawl belt that borders on Tokyo. It also has a massive inferiority complex,which seems to have stopped it doing anything useful about itself until recently, when someone had the bright idea of putting up the Makuhari exhibition center on some vast hectares of reclaimed Tokyo Bay.
(Disneyland and Narita airport were also bright ideas of a sort, but they were both dreamed up by people who had nothing to do with Chiba. All you can blame Chiba for is the transport confusion that surrounds both.)
But when you get to know Chiba you discover that the disorganization and haphazardness is part of a parcel which has many attractive features. Sure, the people seem a bit sloppy and casual at times. But that is because they don’t entirely embrace the Japanese national trait that says life was meant to be disciplined and punctilious. Oraka is the word that comes to mind if one has to describe the Chiba personality. Oraka may not be a word most Japanese like to use about themselves but for me at least it has overtones of places like Bali and other such Shangri-las. Chiba, or rather the still largely unknown southern half known as the Boso Peninsula, has become my Shangri-la. But more of that later.
There are several theories as to why Chiba has stayed so overlooked and neglected for so long. One says it is because it just is not on the way to anywhere-a fat appendage hanging down form the Japanese coast. Another says it is because during the Pacific War the government was sure Chiba would be the favoured area for a US invasion landing against Tokyo. To make sure the invaders would never reach Tokyo, the roads were left potholed, without signs and generally headed in circular directions.
Then there is the theory that says the peninsula area was long a holdout for the Ainu. Some of the place names, like the Isumo River near my own Shangri-la don’t sound very Japanese, and in some of the more remote villages you will see elderly gentlemen of rather unJapanese hirsute appearance.
Geology could be another factor. As the geography book will tell you, most of Japan is volcanic, like Mt. Fuji. Anyway, it seems that for a millennia Mt Fuji sat there doing its thing, which was a lot more violent than anything it does nowadays, and the detritus was washed down to form deep layers of mud in the oceans to the south. The mud compacted into a rock, soft in places, hard in others, and was uplifted to form the Boso Peninsulaa few tens of thousands of years ago. The result is a landscape very different from most of Japan – mile after mile of rolling, hilly country rising to a three hundred meter ridge behind the Kamogawa coastline. Valleys are compact and self-contained, with streams etching down into the mudrock to form, in places, sheer cliffs of glistening, perpetually damp walls through which farmers over the centuries have tunneled networks of irrigation canals.
The shalower valleys they have filled in completely, and diverted the streams into tunnels along the valley edgeso that all one sees is a sea of rice paddies Travelling around the peninsula is a journey from one self-contained ocean of green to another, each with its Shangri-la charm and sense of isolation. Life is prosperous and highly conservative. Tokyo could be a thousand miles away.
But it is the depth of the greenery that draws me most. Maybe it has something to do with the heavy clay soil. Maybe it is due more to the very heavy rainfall; every depression passing up the Japanese coast seems to dump about two to three times more rain on Boso than it does on Tokyo only about 100 kilometers away. Whatever it is, the Boso area has a deepness and lushness of vegetation greater than anything I have found anywhere else in Japan, and Japan is not known for its lack of greenery. The warmer winters could be part of the reason too. Snow falls rarely, and Tateyama at the tip of the peninsula has a yearly average temperature the same as Kagoshima. So in the southern half of the peninsula one finds forests of those lustrous, darkleaved evergreens, camehas, camphor trees, etc. that run in a subtropical belt from eastern Japan through southern China to Nepal.
As in Izu, they mix with the deciduous vegetation to create forests of extraordinary variety and feeling.
Talking of Izu leads me to one of Japan’s stranger anomalies. This is the way the vast majority in Tokyo, given a choice between place A which is far away from Tokyo or place B which is much closer, will inevitably head for place A if it happens to be better known and advertized. So the Northern Alps, which are an inconvenient five to six hour train or car trip from Tokyo, are flooded with hikers through the summer. You have to join a queue to get to the top of the wellknown Yarigadaki and the ridge on the other side is so crowded they call it the Alps Ginza. Meanwhile, the Southern Alps, which are just as high and have much more depth, remain almost untouched and unseen even though they are a mere three hours away (just in from Kofu or Shizuoka).
Similarly with Izu and Boso. Izu has its charms. But for the most part they are located a good three to four hours from Tokyo. If you go by car on a busy weekend they can be as much as eight hours away. They are also fairly crowded and expensive. But Boso is just waiting out there, a mere 90 minutes to two hours away. Even on crowded weekends you get back to Tokyo quickly, provided you know the back roads. And Boso is much larger, wider and generally more accessible than Izu. Yet until very recently Boso was almost completly ignored. The past year or so have seen an influx of surfers to the excellent beaches that run the full length of Sotobo, the outside or east coast of Boso facing the open Pacific. But for many Tokyoites, Chiba is still unknown territory.
For a long time I too was one of those Chiba-ignorant Tokyoites. For years I explored the hills of Okutama, Okuchichibu and Tanzawa just outside Tokyo in my search for places fairly free from the weekend crowds. When I looked at my maps it was hard to ignore the Boso presence. But what did one do there? What was there to see? How did one even get there in the first place? Even at this basic level information was scarce. The maps showed a cute little railway line running to a gorge and a hot-spring (actually heated-spring) resort called Yoro-keikoku in the middle of Boso. But I never met anyone what had been there.
And so my ignorance would have remained, were it not for a sudden urge about ten years ago to have my own weekend plot of land. “Besso with land: only 1.3 million” said the ad. So I dragged myself out to the flatlands behind the gray sands of the Kujukuri beach to the south of Narita where today the same blocks sell for 13 million. But sitting in a tiny hut in the middle of a sandy plain didn’t appeal greatly.
In the distance I could see a line of low hills. I asked the real estate agent whether there mightn’t be some land available in that direction. He said there was any amount of it, but no one in his right mind would want to look at it. I insisted, so he said he would find something. A week later he rang through his deal; two thousand tsubo (about two acres) for 2 million, near a place called Yoro-keikoku.
And so began a very personal saga which has yet to end. The 2,000 tsubo turned out to be a paradise, a small flat area on the top of a steep slope running down to a tiny stream running through a mini gorge of that glistening mudrock. The plot at the top had gone back to jungle, so we cleared it to put in a vegetable garden and a cheap prefab hut. There was no water or electricity, but in the evening we could wander down to the local village for food and a bath. Besides, going without civilization for a weekend was a good antidote to Tokyo. It was a nature-lover’s dream, sitting in the hinoki (cypress) forest that covered the slope and looking out over rows of totally uninhabited hills running southwards down to the Kamogawa coast. And this was supposed to be Japan, a nation so crowded that most people have to give up all hope of even owning the land needed to build a tiny house 90 minutes commuting time out of Tokyo.
A few years later I shifted my Shangri-la. Another real estatebroker showed me another piece of land about the same
size, closer to the coast and to good transport. It had been a terraced hillside farm that had been allowed to slip back into jungle. No one wanted it, even at a mere 5000 per tsubo, or about one thousandth the price a lot of people are paying now for land in the better Tokyo suburbs. It, too, sat on the sunny side of a beautiful green valley, overlooking acres of sugi (cedar) forest without a human insight, only this time there was water and electricity nearby. A few weeks later I was in there with a machete, setting out to clear another piece of abandoned Japan. Almost by accident I planted a few kiwi cuttings to see how they would grow. They never stopped growing. Today a small plot of about 200 tsubo keeps me and quite a few other people in kiwis right through the winter. They are ideal for a weekend farm; bug free, disease resistent, each plant produces hundreds of fruit and they mature in three to four years. The fruit can be stored for up to four months.
What else does one do in Boso? Well, it’s great for drives and bicycling. You can go for hours in almost any direction without running into anything more ugly than the occasional billboard. Keep away from the main coastal roads in the top half of the peninsula, though, since in typical Chiba style they are now crowded out with the worst kind of tacky, unplanned growth. But further down the coast we have some of the best beaches in Japan for surfing, especially on the Pacific side of the peninsula. Onjuku, about halfway down the coast, I would recommend for a family outing; still not too spoiled and with a broad, white sand beach. Kamogawa, a bit further down, has a good beach too and is now developing some classy facilities, including a firstrate marine park. The indented coastline beween Onjuku and Kamogawa would be ideal for a summer holiday, any number of small fishing villages with reasonably cheap minshuku and good places to explore. One day this stretch of coast will be the Riviera of Tokyo, so discover it now before the rest of the world does.
And talking of discovering, let me let you in on one of Japan’s best kept secrets. You’ve heard all the horror stories about every beach within a hundred mile radius of Tokyo being saturated with garbage and bodies right through the summer? Well, that might be true out towards Izu.
In Boso the beaches are so long and so wide that you could dump the whole 30 million population of Tokyo, Chiba and Yokohama there and still have quite a lot of room left to breathe. At the moment we still have only a fraction of that 30 million coming out during the summer. But if even the thought of that fraction worries you then let me tell you the rest of the secret. Take a map and you will see on the east side of Boso, a small strip of uninhabited coast runfling between Ohara and Onjuku. It is uninhabited for a good reason: miles of steep 50-80 meter cliffs cut off all approach from the land. But centuries ago fishermen cut tunnels through to the bottom of those cliffs so they could gather their seaweed and shellfish below. The entrances became overgrown and forgotten in the postwar years and are only now being discovered.
Of these secret beaches my favorite is about three kilometers south of the fishing village of Iwafune. You walk about ten minutes on a muddy track from a dead-end parking road, slide through the mudrock tunnel and emerge at the top of a narrow trail about half way up the side of a cliff. The view that hits you as you come out of the dark, dank tunnel is unforgettable; a kilometer long pink/white sand beach, clean blue ocean, sheer cliffs with caves and ocean grottoes at the foot and the occasional waterfall cascading down. In the middle of August last year the beach was crowded – all of ten people, up one hundred percent from the year before. Several of them were naked. A small group was camping out there all summer. Distance from Tokyo: all of 100 minutes. From Chiba it’s much closer.
Yes, summer is great at Boso. But winter is fine too. At the southern tip they grow flowers right through January for the Tokyo market, and a New Year’s drive around that blue ocean through field of flowers, with friendly farm women selling flowers directly to passersby is one of the more memorable things you can do. So too is a walk through those hills just north of Kamogawa to the vast Kiyosumi Temple where the Buddhist prophet Nichiren was supposed to have sat in meditation 700 years ago as he waited for the first sight of the New Year’s sun rising over the Pacific. An hour’s walk away (further by car since you have to drive back around the coast) is a rival temple at Mamenbara where they say they have the monopoly on Nichiren’s place of meditation. Be that as it may, they do have the monopoly on Japan’s biggest ajisai (hydrangea) plot covering acres of hillside and a sight to see in the rainy season. From Mamenbara a narrow road winds north along a heavily forested ridge, past my first Shangri-la through to Yorokeikoku.
As for the rest of Boso, well it’s pretty exciting too. The west coast facing Tokyo Bay is getting a bit crowded, as are resorts like the Mother Bokujo, where Tokyo moms and dads take the kids to have their first view-of a live cow, and Nokogiri Mountain with its Buddhist carvings. The countryside in from Kamogawa is very attractive and unspoiled, though a bit far for a day’s outing. On balance I prefer my own neck of the woods, the triangle running from Ichinorniya/Ohara on the east coast, down to Kamogawa and then north up to Yoro-keikoku. It took me ten years to get to know this area properly. You might be faster but not much.